Are we getting close to show time? Will Kenneth Starr finally get to ask the president of the United States: "Did you engage in sexual activity with Monica Lewinsky, and did you conspire with her and Vernon Jordan or anyone else to cover it up?"
Starr has cut his immunity deal with Lewinsky. Having subpoenaed President Clinton, he is negotiating with the White House over the forum in which he can grill the president. And he has won a court ruling in his attempt to force Clinton chum (and White House lawyer) Bruce Lindsey to testify.
In Washington, the impression from all this is that the painfully thorough Starr has finally hit cruising speed and that the whole saga is racing toward its dramatic conclusion.
Of course, the end of Starr vs. Clinton has been predicted before, only to see new plot twists suddenly emerge in this extended political soap opera. But if the independent counsel actually is close to wrapping up his case this time, the question is: What is Starr's exit strategy?
Ever since Starr made Lewinsky the most famous intern in the world, the basic issues have remained the same. What would Lewinsky say under oath? If she says she lied in her deposition in the Paula Jones case and that she really did have sex with the president, what would that mean, legally?
Assuming she is now telling the truth, the question then becomes whether Starr would indict the president for lying about a tangential subject in a civil suit that was itself tossed out of court. Some legal experts contend that any perjury charge would have to relate to statements that were material to the case in question. Since the judge in the Jones case removed the Lewinsky matter from those proceedings before the case was dismissed, a perjury charge could be hard to bring against Clinton or Lewinsky.
Civil perjury charges are quite rare, in any case. It is uncertain whether Starr would want to be the first independent counsel to indict a president if such an unusual and flimsy charge were his only choice.
A related line of inquiry in Monicagate is the question of whether there was a high-level conspiracy to cover up the alleged Lewinsky-Clinton relationship. The conventional view is that if Starr could demonstrate that the president plotted with Jordan or others to encourage Lewinsky to commit perjury or obstruct justice, the president would be in deep trouble.
But the word on the Lewinsky-Starr talks was that when Starr pressed Lewinsky to validate such a scheme, she resisted. Her line appears to be, "sex but no lies." After months of pressuring Lewinsky, Starr apparently could get no better deal than the one Lewinsky and William Ginsburg, her first lawyer, originally offered way back when.
Conspiracies are often hard to prove -- particularly if no one spills the beans. Jordan, for one, is probably too smooth to have ever explicitly spelled out quid pro quos such as, "I'll get you a job if you keep your mouth shut about the president." This is nod-nod-wink-wink territory -- and that is tough terrain for a prosecutor.
So what is Starr to do? With the Lewinsky immunity deal, he no longer has the prospect of prosecuting her and using that venue to embarrass the president. And the prevailing assumption in Washington is that Starr has more or less realized he cannot indict a sitting president.
On the other hand, not going to court may be a good deal for Starr. He will not have to submit his case -- whatever it is -- to a jury, or prove anything in open court.
Instead, he can pursue his remaining option and produce a report for Congress. This way, Starr can present his evidence in a format under his total control, unchallenged by the other side. He can proclaim that he believes one party over another (say, Lewinsky over Clinton on the topic of whether sex transpired between them). He can declare that there was indeed a conspiracy to obstruct justice. Having interviewed so many witnesses about so many things over four-plus years, he may even be able to say he snared Clinton in a lie or two, about other relationships or other deals somewhere in the past.
Best of all, Starr can release his report when he chooses -- which gives him the option of trying to affect the outcome of the congressional elections this fall.
Ultimately, when the curtain does fall, we may be left with no more than Kenneth Starr's own take on Monicagate. Given that he is the most politically suspect independent counsel in the history of the office, that isn't likely to count for much. And it would still be left to a reluctant Congress to sort out the legal implications, if any.
Yes, Starr may be moving faster these days. But he seems headed in the same direction as before -- toward a conclusion unlikely to be conclusive.